Beijing Critics Praise British Envoy They Once Faulted

Lord Palmerston, who twice served as British prime minister in the 19th century, is quoted as having said the British “have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual.” A dramatic turn of events involving Britain’s ambassador in China serves to illustrate his point.  Caroline Wilson was criticized for showing too much deference to China in September of last year, immediately before she headed to Beijing to take up her post. UK Ambassador to China Stirs Uproar With Photo Seen as Promoting Xi JinpingBritish foreign ministry says it uses ‘engagement to raise matters on which the UK cannot agree or compromise with China’Six months later, Wilson is being applauded for standing up for a cherished democratic principle, even as she is singled out by her Chinese hosts for violating diplomatic protocol and lecturing national authorities. I stand by my article. No doubt the outgoing Chinese Ambassador to the UK stands by the 170+ pieces he was free to place in mainstream British media.— Caroline Wilson (@CWilson_FCDO) March 9, 2021“When the British ambassador to China, Caroline Wilson, called on her counterpart in London before taking up her posting to Beijing, I criticized the way she allowed Ambassador Liu Xiaoming to exploit the photo opportunity,” Roger Garside, himself a former British diplomat who twice served in Beijing, said in a written interview with VOA from his home in London.  Following that meeting, Wilson posted a photograph of herself with Liu in which the two diplomats held up what appeared to be a gifted book, the latest in a series of tomes laying out Chinese President Xi Jinping’s thoughts on governance.”So, if I now express my support for an action for which the Chinese Foreign Ministry has rebuked her,” Garside continued, “I cannot be accused of unthinkingly jumping to the defense of my government’s representative.”Garside, author of a forthcoming book on contemporary China, said his newfound admiration for Wilson grew out of “the way Ambassador Wilson posted on the embassy’s WeChat website a defense of the role of a free press in speaking truth to power, whether that power be the rulers of its own country or of a foreign nation.”  In her posting, Wilson noted that Beijing had expelled a record number of foreign journalists in 2020, apparently in the belief that their criticisms of the Chinese government showed a dislike of the country. But, she wrote, in countries like her own, media criticism of the government is viewed as something positive which is intended to help make the country better.  While Garside and other supporters found Wilson’s posting principled, “elegant and instructive,” Chinese state media reported that Wilson had been summoned by the Foreign Ministry, which described her comments as full of arrogance and bias and displaying “conduct gravely unbefitting that of a diplomatic representative.”For Benedict Rogers, co-founder of the British Conservative Party’s Human Rights Commission, the two incidents reflect less a change of heart by Wilson than an underlying dissonance that exists in all of Britain’s dealings with China.The contrasting episodes “symbolize the tension and the almost sort-of slightly schizophrenic approach of British policy toward China,” Rogers told VOA in a phone interview from London.Rogers sees the two incidents as evidence of the British government’s desire to be on good terms with China while not wanting to pretend that freedom of the press, freedom of expression and other core democratic values don’t matter.“I think it is one of the greatest debates of our time,” he said. The question, he added, “will be how much the government itself will be able to walk this tightrope of defending our values but at the same time preserving such a high priority on trade.”   This tension aside, Rogers said Wilson’s latest encounter in Beijing illustrates the reality of Beijing’s conduct with other governments.“Even though you’ve sort of tried to reach out to them and be almost a friend to them, when you say something they don’t like, no matter how respectful, even kowtowing before, they’re going to respond furiously,” Rogers said.